Ben is Ten

Ben hadn’t ever had a birthday party with friends. It’s not like we didn’t celebrate his birthday: we had a little gathering every year with family and close friends, including his brother, sister and the kids of our friends. We’d had cakes and garlands, songs and presents. Every year James makes a video of Ben’s last year and we all watch it together. We instigated a tradition of birthday ice skating at Somerset House. But no big party with friends and chaos.

This was partly because Ben didn’t seem to really like parties. He found the number of people and the noise difficult. He didn’t enjoy party games with lots of kids and often cried when we sang him happy birthday, especially if we clapped too loudly at the end. He didn’t have an obvious friendship group in the way Max, for example, did – his school has never been local and his classes have been smaller – so it was hard to know who to invite. I didn’t want him to have a party for the sake of a party. Also Ben couldn’t and then didn’t request a birthday party in the way that Max and Molly do, relentlessly. We didn’t think he would enjoy a typical child birthday party so we didn’t organise one. Or perhaps I felt too sad about the fact that I wasn’t sure how to pull together a birthday party with friends for him, so I didn’t.  Or both.

But then Ben was turning ten years old which felt like a milestone to mark. Ben was invited to a friend’s party at an ice rink and ice skating is one of Ben’s favourite things. I was thrilled to realise it’s possible (though not cheap) to briefly hire an ice rink. All of this culminated in …

Last weekend he had a tenth birthday party with family and friends, kids from school and home and their siblings. Thirteen kids on the ice, six of them using wheelchairs. At the start we were the only ones there and Ben and James swirled around alone, the whole rink to themselves. Ben’s friends arrived and the rink was a wonderful mix of semi- and in-competent skaters offering to push wheelchairs in the interests of their own stability. Molly and her cousin wobbled around holding onto plastic penguins. Max approached it with admirable confidence.

When we finished skating, the kids that could eat helped themselves to carbohydrates and sugar and Ben sat happily amongst them. Then we lit candles and sang him happy birthday around some amateur egg-free cupcakes. As we sang, he beamed, thoroughly enjoying the noise and the attention. I had pre-blended a cake at home so we fed him cake via his feeding tube as others tucked in. In the unphotogenic surroundings of a local authority ice rink, sat in front of a vending machine, Ben had fun and after ten years we had worked out how to give him a party he enjoyed.

We then moved on to a pub which usually caters for football fans and so had wheelchair-accessible open spaces, friendly staff and plasma screens everywhere you looked. We had not planned this, and we’d never been to the pub before, but Ben loves a screen and watching football pundits appeared to be exactly the post-party vibe he was looking for. (The Tollington Arms was as welcoming a pub as you could hope for).

I am so delighted to have been a mother to this boy for ten years and, this year, to have found a way to celebrate with his friends. I think we got there for Ben’s tenth birthday because we had waited to find the kind of party he could enjoy. It’s taken time for us to facilitate his friendships. It’s only after ten years that he’s come round to the idea of being the centre of attention at parties. All of it culminated in a bunch of children, half using wheelchairs, zooming round an ice rink to the sound of George Ezra (again) and it was glorious. He is glorious.

Where kids go to school

Max started school in September. It has made me think a lot about how we educate kids with disabilities.

Max’s school is a short walk away from home. It is a typical inner city state primary. Unremarkable for being similar to lots of other schools in London. Remarkable for being like many other schools which are also educating loads of kids with different needs, languages and backgrounds. I have been consistently impressed by how they have calmly settled thirty new kids into school and appear to be totally in control, while I struggle to keep three kids in any kind of order at home. Max has been learning at a furious pace – generally uncommunicative about his day, he’ll then slip in some comment about how to spell a word, or write something, or tell us about numbers in a way that shows he is really soaking up the things he is being taught.

One of the reasons I liked the school when we originally looked round was because it seemed to accommodate difference well – it has specialist provision for pupils with autism, it has a dyslexia centre. It has the kind of diversity of kids you would expect of an inner London school. I believe these things are important.

(Sidenote: a teaching assistant who we loved at Ben’s old school once told me she chose her non-disabled daughter’s school based on it having a lot of kids with special educational needs and being well known for inclusion. People like that make the world a bit brighter.)

Out of the classroom, and purely by chance, it turns out we live on the same road as two other kids in Max’s year and as we all troop up and down the hill every morning we have got to know each other. So within weeks of starting school Max was being invited over, and James and I were getting to know other parents. We bump into parents from the school in other local places and stop for a chat. Apart from this being really fun for Max, it has meant us being able to ask for favours; when Ben was ill, another mum collected Max for me and brought him home. This is new to us and it’s brilliantly straightforward.

I was worried about Max starting at a school where no-one knew Ben. Of course I was wrong to be concerned – within the first few weeks he had described his family with accompanying photos: ‘Me and Ben are lying in bed. Ben’s disabled and my bed isn’t that big so he sleeps downstairs’. Within the first half term the whole class had watched videos of Paralympic athletes and discussed overcoming adversity. As the teachers said at the time, the kids were too busy being impressed with Jonny Peacock’s speed to notice his lack of leg. Max has the confidence to explain Ben’s disability when he needs or wants to and he knows it isn’t negative or something to be self-conscious about, it just is.

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So far Max’s school is everything we hoped it would be. It is enabling the small ordinary interactions of living in a community. And in that respect, it is really – and unavoidably – different to Ben’s school experience.

Ben goes to school five miles away. It’s a really good school, and he’s there because we think it’s the best school for him right now. It takes about an hour each way for him to travel there and back every day. That is not that unusual – kids at Ben’s school come from all over London, in every direction.

James, a carer or I take and collect Ben two days a week. We chose to do that, so we see his classroom and his classmates, and have chats with his teachers and assistants. The other days he gets a school bus, like almost every other child in the school since. We rarely bump into other parents at the school.

Years ago, we looked at Max’s current school as a school for Ben. They were willing to consider it, but he would have been the only physically disabled child in the school and they had no track record of teaching a child like him. We decided it was better for Ben to go to school further away that had proven expertise in teaching children like Ben, in helping them to communicate and in maximising their potential.

We think this was the right decision for Ben, but it means we removed him from his local community. It is only through our efforts to engage him in local activities outside school (and my reliably local family) that he will have any sense of belonging in our little bit of south London. As I have written about before, life is all about human connections and this is more important, not less, for children with disability for whom interacting is challenging.

In some ways this is where Max comes in, as an unwitting but ever reliable social conduit. He invites his friends over, and then Ben is surrounded by boys playing with helicopters. Those boys, and their mums, dads, sisters and brothers, meet Ben and then recognise him in the street. They ask questions and get to know him. We take Ben to the Christmas Fair at Max’s school, where he meets Max’s teachers, other parents and kids, and really enjoys the Salvation Army brass band (obviously).

As ever, the path of inclusion never runs smooth, and Ben couldn’t meet Santa at the fair because the grotto was up two small flights of steps. But never mind – Max told Santa he needed a present for his brother, who is disabled, and wasn’t there, and Santa handed it over. They both got books about the Lego movie so we are all now clear about exactly why Vitruvius (not that one) is so amazing.

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There’s an argument to be made that it makes sense to group children who need specialist input together (and no-one appreciates the expertise of really specialist teachers, speech and language therapists and technologists more than me). That it makes sense to have a critical mass of similar-ish kids in a school together. It’s kind of obvious, and I have sympathy with this point of view, not least because kids like to be with their peers and for some children, perhaps being the sole physically disabled kid in a school is not necessarily that bolstering an environment. I think it works well for Ben to be somewhere with kids that communicate like him, and professionals experienced in teaching kids like him.

It’s not good enough that at 8am every morning hundreds of children with special educational needs are being bussed around the city, sitting in traffic jams while they try to get an education, driving past the local kids who could have been their friends. It’s not good enough that the families of the kids on the buses don’t get to know local parents. How otherwise are they supposed to forge the kind of friendships that are based on mutual understanding of how you feel at 9am having used the cross voice at least five times to ask your child to put on their shoes/not get run over by a motorbike/stop walking on that bit of wall, when you have run to school as you tried to keep up with your child scooting too fast down a hill, and are now wondering if someone is going to give you a medal for remembering the bookbag?

Obviously, calmly loading your older child on to a bus arriving at your house at 8.15am can sound attractive in comparison to the 9am chaos, but is it right? Is it really the right way to organise an education system? Is it fair for disabled kids? And are we really doing right by our non-disabled children?

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(Unconnected, cheerful picture)

Advice

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Late last year I gave a talk about Ben and myself to about eighty paediatricians taking part in a training day at the Royal Society of Medicine. I had twenty minutes to give ‘A Parent’s Perspective’. The main challenge was to edit sufficiently to fit within time – given the opportunity there is much I can think of to say. If I were allowed to do Mastermind with Ben as my specialist subject, I would blitz it.

They were a receptive audience and gasped (‘Ben had 157 appointments last year’) and laughed (niche jokes about junior surgeons’ lack of interpersonal skills) at the appropriate points. I was asked a number of very perceptive questions at the end, but I was really struck by one:

“What do you wish you had known, or had been told, when Ben was born – and what would you advise someone just starting out on a similar kind of life to yours?”

I didn’t immediately know how to answer this, but after a momentary panic in front of a large audience, I thought of something and here I will expand on it.

When Ben was in hospital just after he had been born I was expressing breastmilk for him, something I was finding relentless and dispiriting. A breastfeeding support worker put me in touch with a woman I will call E, who had expressed for over six months because her child had difficulty feeding.

Once Ben came home from hospital I couldn’t keep up with a brutal regime of pumping, bottle-feeding, tube feeding and sleep deprivation, so I stopped expressing milk. But by that time I was in touch with E anyway, and she came round for a cup of tea. She told me she thought I was doing brilliantly which was incredibly encouraging.

Meeting her in the first few months of Ben’s life was hugely important. Her son was very different from mine, with a totally different condition, but there were similarities between our lives – not least the shock of realising things are not (and probably won’t ever be) as you expected.

Most importantly, she was heavily pregnant with her second child. The idea that she had been able to accommodate all of the difficulties of her first child sufficiently to decide to have another one gave me hope. Not just that it might be possible to have another child, but that our lives might one day be as optimistic.

I stayed in touch with E and we met periodically, through my emergence from the fug of the aftermath of Ben’s birth, and the births of my second and her third child. It was comforting and fun.

This kind of camaraderie is not unique to parenting a disabled child – much of the success of NCT is because new parents need solidarity and someone who understands the challenges and joys of a brand new baby. But finding yourself talking to a parent of a disabled child is a bit more niche and therefore perhaps a bit more special. There is huge solidarity and comfort in talking to people who have experienced similar difficulties to you, who you don’t have to explain everything to. It is most uplifting if those people are thriving, but actually any contacts will do.

I have since met many other mothers of children who are disabled, complicated or simply non-typical. I tend to find these conversations are accelerated – with no need to do as much explaining, we will very quickly be discussing private feelings and traumatic experiences. We recognise the similarity of our lives, and our subject matter touches on all of the most intimate and important aspects of being human: what your priorities are, who you were and who you have become, how and who you love.

Or sometimes I’ve just had a chat about purely practical matters. No deep connection, but getting the number of a good physio is valuable. Sometimes having a disabled child in common is not enough, and someone is just not my kind of person, but that’s fine. Sometimes things are not going very well and I just need to hunker down and get through it, not talk to anyone.

Over the years these acquaintances have come in many guises – friends of friends, women from the supermarket, bloggers, parents accompanying their children to sessions at Small Steps or fellow students on a course. I have valued these connections hugely.

So if I met myself five years ago, I would say find some friends who have been in a similar position. Either online or in your city. There are people who have survived a life like yours, and many who have thrived. You are not alone.

(You could always send me an email)

P.S. These photos were taken by my brother-in-law, a paediatrician, who attended the conference. People thought he was really weird and a bit obsessed with me and Ben until they realised he was related to us.

P.P.S. I think of my approach to make-up as quite restrained. These photos would appear to show otherwise.